Many people, including veterinary technicians, were taught to grab a cat by the scruff when they need to be restrained. Although long believed to be a harmless way to provide restraint and mimic how a mother cat picks up her kittens, scruffing is not a secure way to restrain a cat, is forceful, and induces fear and anxiety in most cats.
What Is Scruffing?
Scruffing is a general term for a variety of holds on the skin of a cat’s neck. Grasping the scruff of the neck varies from a gentle squeeze of skin to grasping a larger fold of skin with varying amounts of pressure, and sometimes is accompanied by lifting the cat up or heavily restraining the cat in other ways.
The theory behind this restraint is that since kittens go limp when their mothers carry them by the scruff, a tight grip on the loose skin over a cat’s shoulders would trigger the same response. Mother cats grab kittens by their scruff only in the first few weeks of life to transport them. A mother cat knows the precise pressure to place on the skin at the back of the neck and cats have pressure sensors on their teeth, which explains why they have the ability to carry a mouse in their mouths without a scratch on the mouse.
What Is the Problem With Scruffing?
- Cats are only grabbed by the scruff on their neck in limited circumstances: during the first few weeks of life by their mother, during mating, fighting, and when they are being attacked by a predator. None of these situations, which create stress, are helpful to mimic in a home, veterinary or shelter setting.
- Lifting a cat or suspending its body weight by its scruff is unnecessary and could be painful. It is not a respectful way to pick up your cat.
- Scruffing entirely removes the cat’s option to retreat and its sense of control, causing potentially aggressive behavior.
How to Restrain a Cat Without Scruffing
There are many different ways of handling and restraining cats that do not involve scruffing or heavy restraint. These feline-friendly methods take a less-is-more approach while also assessing the cat's body language and using restraint methods that allow for the cat to hide.
- Using a considerate approach when approaching a cat: Avoid a frontal approach and staring. Move calmly and speak in quiet tones, and keep the carrier covered with a pheromone-infused towel and elevated on high surface prior to exam. If the cat does not come out of carrier on their own, remove the top to remove the cat from the carrier, rather than tipping the carrier or straining to pull the cat out.
- Towel handling techniques: Many towel restraint techniques can be used for cats, including blanket wraps like the burrito, half-burrito, and scarf wraps. The varied techniques allow accessibility to different areas of the cat for different procedures. All towel restraint methods require practice and patience.
- Supporting the cat well: By having your hands, arms, and body positioned appropriately, the cat should not feel as if they will fall or are off balance.
- Adjusting your handling based on the cat and their response to restraint
- Creating an environment that consider the cat’s point-of-view: This includes sights, smells and pheromones, sounds, touch, and tastes.
- Distractions and rewards like food, brushing, and play
- Examining the cat where they prefer (owners lap, cat carrier)
All cats are individuals and we need to assess the cats body language and be flexible with handling techniques based on the cat’s individual preference. Allow the cat to maintain its chosen position and vary your touch with the cat’s response.
Benefits of Feline-Friendly Handling
- Travel is less stressful for cats and caregivers. Alleviate or reduce the anxiety and fear that are associated with getting ready to come to the vet.
- A 2014 study conducted by Bayer HealthCare and the American Association of Feline Practitioners found that more than half of U.S. cats were not receiving regular veterinary care. Increasing compliance through gentle handling and behavior in the exam room, with cats having less stress and a more positive travel and veterinary experience, more cats will go to the vet.
- By promoting safety, when a cat’s fear and anxiety is reduced, there is a lower likelihood of bites, scratches, and other injuries to caregivers and handlers.
- With better medicine, your veterinarian will have more accurate and complete exams including more accurate blood tests, temperature, and blood pressure.
Rodan, Ilona et al. AAFP And ISFM Feline-Friendly Handling Guidelines. Journal Of Feline Medicine And Surgery, vol 13, no. 5, 2011, pp. 364-375. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1016/j.jfms.2011.03.012
Volk, John O. et al. Executive Summary Of Phase 3 Of The Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study. Journal Of The American Veterinary Medical Association, vol 244, no. 7, 2014, pp. 799-802. American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), doi:10.2460/javma.244.7.799